Following reports of donors, volunteers and board members of medical systems being given special access to COVID-19 vaccines, the King County Council rebuked the practice in legislation passed Tuesday and called on the state to ban such preferential treatment.
The King County Council’s motion is the latest in a series of actions from government officials condemning special access to COVID-19 vaccines. Revelation of the practice comes at a time when the vaccine is in short supply, and its beleaguered distribution is fraught with inequities.
The practice illustrates a complicated vaccination rollout run by an overwhelmed health care system that has had little guidance from the federal government on vaccine availability, said motion sponsor King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles.
“It reinforces that the rollout has been very frustrating and challenging across the board, including to Public Health-Seattle & King County, the state Department of Health and health care institutions,” Kohl-Welles told The Seattle Times. Nevertheless, Kohl-Welles said she believes that a person’s wealth or power should not grant them special access to doses.
“Everybody should have to play by the same rules. No one should have privilege. And officials should do everything possible to get vaccines to those individuals who are eligible and most in need,” she added.
A Jan. 26 investigation by The Seattle Times revealed that Overlake Medical Center & Clinics informed about 110 donors who gave more than $10,000 to the hospital system that limited vaccination slots were available. Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett also invited donors, board members and fundraising campaign volunteers for first dibs to the vaccine on Jan. 25, when the hospital was not offering it to the public. Meanwhile, EvergreenHealth in Kirkland shared a link to vaccine appointments with some volunteers, foundation board members and people who serve older adults in a trial of its vaccine scheduling tool.
“At a time when low-income and communities of color are already being hit hardest by COVID-19, it is appalling that wealthy individuals are able to cheat the system to get a vaccine. We need to lead with our core value of equity and ensure that vaccine providers in King County prioritize the vulnerable rather than the rich,” King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, a co-sponsor of the motion, said in a statement.
Late last month, Gov. Jay Inslee condemned Overlake Medical Center for granting vaccination appointments to volunteers, retirees, donors and board members. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan also urged the state Department of Health (DOH) to put an end to preferential COVID-19 vaccine access.
Kohl-Welles introduced the motion during last week’s council meeting, and worked to revise the language until it passed Tuesday.
At the state level, legislators introduced a bill Feb. 3 to create a civil penalty up to $10,000 per violation for hospitals and organizations that grant privileged access to the vaccine. In Tuesday’s motion, King County Council members urged the state Legislature to take action and for Gov. Jay Inslee to issue an executive order prohibiting the practice.
“Any organization that is vaccinating people based on VIP status and wealth should no longer receive the vaccine. Period,” King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said in a statement.
Inslee’s office said Tuesday that the vaccine preferential treatment practices have ended following several weeks of conversations with DOH, local and state partners.
“But if they have not, we will continue to push to stop it as quickly as we can,” governor spokesperson Tara Lee said in an email, adding, “If hospitals or other providers do continue this action, then the governor’s office has been very clear that future shipments of vaccines could be withheld from them.”
The governor’s office does not plan to issue an executive order to put an end to the practice but will consider it if preferential treatment remains a problem, Lee said.
Staff writers Jim Brunner, Evan Bush and Sydney Brownstone contributed to this report.